Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Who Wants To Live Forever?

Could science offer us immortality one day? How about to those of us already living? Seems too good to be true, but then I'll bet so did cell phones in 1900.

From The Toledo Blade, via RedOrbit:

The immortalists argue that aging can be prevented and treated, just like medicine deals with other health problems.

Cambridge University's Aubrey de Grey, one of the leaders, claims it will happen in time for some people alive today. Much of the scientific knowledge, he argues, is already available. And de Grey has mapped out a project, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (http://www.gen.cam.ac.uk/sens/) to treat and cure aging.

I actually did some homework and went to the SENS site and prowled around a bit. Unfortunately, my sole excursion into the realm of biology academia was a single course on anthropology taught by a primatologist. In other words, I am in no way able to evaluate the science on its merits. So I won't even attempt to do so. Suffice to say, de Grey approaches the solution to aging in much the same way that treatment for AIDS is approached. Basically, aging is treated like a terminal disease, but one which its symptoms can be managed indefinitely. One would simply take the proper treatments to stave off the ill effects of the metabolic process, thus insuring a lifespan that could effectively never end.

Now, I take any such claim as this with a rather large grain of salt, as, again, I don't understand the science well enough and if it were truly a lock, it would be making the cover of Time, Newsweek, the NYT and so forth, today. It isn't. However, the idea that this type of science could be a reality raises some very interesting questions and predictions about the human existence.

Nothing defines the human condition like death. It's the one surety of a mortal existence; that it will one day end. Abolishing death by natural causes would facilitate a massive sea change in human consciousness. My first prediction is that life will become much more precious in its new limitless quantity. It will require a radical re-aligning of both our military policy and certainly our legal system to deal with the reality of endless life spans. For what could be the just punishment for murder when the victim has lost something immeasurable? How much greater the cost of war when lives are no longer "cut short" but now just "cut off"?

My second prediction is that most religions will face a dogmatic crisis. Mortality has long been the theological dividing line between the divine and the "earthly". How does the wheel of karma spin out new lives once immortality is achieved? What kind of salvation does belief in Christ hold when death has been conquered by science? Suddenly, death is no longer a certainty but a tragic accident or horrendous assault. I predict an unprecedented rise in humanist moral beliefs. After all, given that death is the gateway to joining with the divine, what separates man from God once mortality is removed? I predict also a frightening rise in the occurrence of ritualistic suicides, for once death is removed as a certainty, the choice for death takes on a greater spiritual significance. Death becomes a question of moral choice, which religion will no doubt encapsulate in some new spiritual paradigm.

My final prediction is that the full class stratification of the world will finally have its driving impetus from the rise of immortality. Capitalist market theory obviously dictates that the wealthy and affluent will have the first opportunity to purchase immortality "treatments", thus death becomes the final wall separating the well-off from the downtrodden. However, I believe a scenario in which the wealthy "own" the right to life will not persist for long. The entire social structure of the world will be poised for change, for what higher stakes can there be in a revolution than immortality? The very structure of society will radically shift, as the conflict between class becomes one of absolute life or death.

This may all seem a little bizarre to most, but it's worth noting that scientists like de Gray are quite serious in their goal to eliminate the effects of aging. They've even sponsored a contest encouraging scientists the world over to be the first to create a "Methuselah Mouse"; mice being so genetically similar to humans. Success at such will almost certainly spawn a flurry of human testing, for what greater medical goal could there be than the conquering of death? Volunteers would be lined up around the block, either for themselves or for the prospect of bequeathing immortality to their children.

For those of us wishing to have everlasting life, it's a fascinating notion that it could be within reach and that science, not faith, could provide it.

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